Weekly Video Picks

Calle 54 (2000)

Music-performance films are difficult to sustain beyond two or three numbers. Without a compelling personality or narrative the viewer quickly loses interest. Madrid-based filmmaker Fernando Trueba triumphantly sails over these obstacles by mixing lush production numbers with hand-held interviews with the lead musicians. His Calle 54 is a passionate feature-length documentary about Latin jazz and its most talented practitioners. Unlike the celebrated Buena Vista Social Club, it doesn't confine itself to a particular place or style.

The music, of mainly Cuban and Puerto Rican origin, is a joyous fusion of samba, flamenco and meringue rhythms with classic Dizzy Gillespie-like jazz sounds. The most touching sequence is the father-andson reunion between pianists Bebo and Chucho Valdez who were separated by Fidel Castro's revolution. They awkwardly become re-acquainted on camera and then try to top each other with virtuosi performances.

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Golden-age Hollywood adventure yarns didn't strain for their thrills or laughs. The action and humor sprang organically from the characters and exotic locales. The Man Who Would Be King, directed by John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) from Rudyard Kipling's short story, is one of last and best of this vanished genre. Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) are British ex-soldiers who journey into the hills of Kafiristan (a province in Eastern Afghanistan now called Nuristan) to make their fortune in 1880.

Setting out from the office of Kipling (Christopher Plummer), who was then a journalist in India, the scheming pair plan to train a primitive tribe in modern warfare and help its king conquer its neighbors. In the process, they intend to “subvert that king and loot the kingdom four ways from Sunday.” Their success brings more problems than the many hardships they have to endure to achieve it. Huston's tongue-in-cheek attitudes about his scoundrel-heroes and British imperialism keep the story fresh for contemporary audiences.

General Della Rovere (1959)

A person's discovery of a moral code can spring from strange circumstances. General Della Rovere, based on a real-life incident, is a powerful, well-constructed drama about a criminal who finds his own morality by imitating another's.

Director Roberto Rossellini (Open City and The Flowers of St. Francis) skillfully recreates the wartime atmosphere of Genoa, Italy during the Nazi occupation of the winter of 1943–4. The Gestapo accidentally kills resistance leader, Gen. della Rovere. The local German commandant, Col. Mueller (Hannes Messemer), persuades a devious swindler, Bardone (Vittorio De Sica), to impersonate the partisan hero. With this false identity, Bardone is placed in a Milan jail, where he's ordered to find another resistance leader with whom the real della Rovere intended to meet. Bardone enjoys the respect with which he's treated as a brave partisan. When put to the test, he too becomes a hero.